Naperville event works to help disabled find jobs
By Hank Beckman For The Sun October 11, 2012 7:58PM
Updated: November 13, 2012 6:38AM
The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce held its first-ever Job and Resource Fair for People with Disabilities Thursday at Northern Illinois University’s Naperville facility at 1120 W. Diehl Road.
With about 200 job seekers and their parents browsing through the job exhibits, resumes in hand, it likely won’t be the last such event in the city.
“We saw a need in the community,” Chamber Membership Coordinator Sharon Meyerhoff said.
Most of the 20 businesses represented were large companies, and Meyerhoff sees that as a positive that will entice other firms to attend future job fairs.
“It’s not just that we got businesses to agree to come here,” she said. “It’s who we have. We have some key corporations that are partnering with us to find work for people with disabilities.”
Navistar, RR Donnelly, Office Max and NICOR and other mainstays set up booths at the fair. Representatives from the companies took resumes and counseled job seekers and their parents.
Local non-profit groups like Ray Graham Association, Little Friends and Turning Pointe Autism Foundation were also very much in evidence.
A particular challenge for job seekers with disabilities is that they are young adults recently out of high school who suddenly find themselves with too much time on their hands, event organizers said.
Naperville resident Megan Niklas is one of those people with energy to spare.
She serves as an advocate for the National Association of Down Syndrome Public Speakers Program in the Chicago area. Niklas finds time to volunteer as a manager of the North Central College women’s basketball team and at St. Raphael Church in Naperville, where she serves as a volunteer greeter and office assistant.
But she has a lot more to offer than just enthusiasm.
“I have experience with computers, and I’m looking for more computer work,” she said. “I do a lot with Excel and Word.”
“She’s committed,” her mother, Jeanne, said.
But like a lot of people with disabilities seeking to enter the workforce, the amount of work available, volunteer or paid, can be limited.
“A lot of jobs are two to two and one half hours,” her mother said. “We’re looking for something for her for longer segments.”
The Niklas family is not alone in looking for more work for their adult children.
“He’s got a part-time job at Jewel now, but he needs more to keep him busy,” Pat Herr said of her mentally impaired son, who didn‘t make it to the job fair. “It’s frustrating … he wants to work so badly.”
Deb Christopher’s daughter is a high school junior with Down Syndrome and she’s trying to get a head start on getting her daughter training.
“We don’t want to wait,” she said. “We want to get the information now so she can start the vocational training to prepare for the workforce.”
Potential employers at the event had varied programs for those with special needs. Vocational training was a key element.
“We’re expanding,” Kinsey Parker, communications specialist for the Turning Pointe Autism Foundation, said.
Turning Point has partnered with Walgreens and Office Max to train people with disabilities. Turning Pointe’s new facility at 1500 W. Ogden Ave., hosts both a school for 15 students and training facilities.
The student-trainees get actual orders for customers, which they fill and ship off to an office in Itasca.
“They feel like they’re actually doing something,” Parker said. “And when they start working, it’s not such a big shock.”
While many of the jobs available for people with disabilities are part-time, Office Max provides full-time work.
“It’s full-time work with full-time benefits,” Office Max’s Sheryl Von Westernhagen, said. “We’ve been working to be proactive in hiring the disabled and veterans.”